Posted by: Johan Normark | May 25, 2011

Droughts, famine, communication, and economic transformation

In my recent debate with Stanley Guenter he argues that the centralized Angkor/the Khmer empire would have faced a drought better than the far more decentralized polities of the Maya lowlands. Part of his argument has to do with communication systems and in that sense Angkor had much better roads, beasts of burden, etc. A similar argument is also made by Richardson Gill when he argues that the Colonial period communication system (roads, wheeled vehicles, animals, and ships) would have allowed the Colonial Maya to survive droughts. Unfortunately, historical examples from elsewhere shows that often is not the case.

In an article by Evan Fraser three past famines are compared: Ireland’s Potato Famine (1845-1849), the late Victorian famines in Asia (1876-1879, 1889-1891, and 1896-1902), and Ethiopia (several droughts between 1965 and 1987). The former US president Ulysses Grant travelled in Asia during the famine of 1877 and he stated that railway and telegraph networks would reduce the impact of drought. However, it was exactly the opposite that happened. These technological advances actually exacerbated the local food shortages. Moving grain by the railway rapidly increased the prices everywhere. Locals were suddenly competing with much wealthier consumers elsewhere.

The same can be argued for the Colonial period in Yucatan. Farriss mention how villages were depleted of maize by forced sales. Maize was transported to the major Colonial towns and the rural areas suffered because of better communication routes…

The Victorian droughts occurred at a time of major economic transformation. Similar patterns can be found in Colonial Mexico as well. Increasing frequencies of droughts (not necessarily meteorological droughts but agricultural droughts) coincided with the Bourbon reforms and the expansion of the haciendas in the late 18th century. Farriss calls this the second conquest and during this time the Maya lost land to the haciendas. Their whole life situation changed when they were drawn into the free-market system. Hence, an economic change made the effects of the droughts worse.

Do we find similar patterns during the Terminal Classic as well? If I remember correctly from Arthur Demarest’s presentation in Sacramento, he suggests that the trade routes had begun to change, something Cancuen had capitalized on (they interacted much more with the Guatemalan highlands than with the Peten). Chichen Itza’s role in the north is also suggestive of new economic situations, such as that seen in the changed economic pattern at Xuenkal. People seem to have gone from agricultural production to cloth production for the greater Chichen Itza economy. Stanley seems to favor the traditional Central Mexican invasion model. Maybe he is right since this could very well explain the changed political and economic situation seen in the north. But then, did this economic change follow a series of droughts or did the droughts become worse because of a new economic transformation like in the later and better known historical examples above? Chronology is indeed of importance here. If the economic change precedes the drought then drought is not the driving cause for the collapse.

Fraser, Evan D. G. (2007). Travelling in antique lands: using past famines to develop an adaptability/resilience framework to identify food systems vulnerable to climate change. Climate Change 83:495-514.

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